Throughout history, African American males attending public schools throughout the United States, have been performing worse academically than their White peers.
Being that academic achievement levels are critical in determining long-lasting success, it is important to explore the history of educational inequity that African Americans have experienced and the roles of teachers in culturally diverse classrooms. The Underachievement of African American Males in K-12 Education by Deborah A. Harmon and Donna Y. Ford, examines the root causes of educational discrimination as far back as American Slavery where Africans were not allowed to learn how to read and write. After the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, many African American families were forced to live in segregated communities. Segregated communities meant children attended segregated schools.
In 1896, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson stated that segregated schools were considered legal as long as they were equal in quality (Harmon and Ford, 2010, p. 3). African American schools were not equal compared to White-only schools. They lacked basic infrastructure necessities, were underfunded, and did not have access to new instructional materials. It was not until 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas that segregation in schools was made illegal (Harmon and Ford, 2010, p.
4) African American and White students were now attending the same schools in an attempt to achieve educational equality. Desegregation in schools brought along new challenges for African American students. Some of these challenges included being taught by mostly White teachers who lacked cultural sensitivity and the curriculum not being inclusive of their culture or history. As a result, many African American students experienced a drop in test scores, higher rates of suspension and expulsion, and lower graduation rates compared to their white peers (Harmon and Ford, 2010, p. 4).While there has been significant progress made toward equitable educational opportunities, the opportunities for African American students still remain separate and unequal. Possibilities and Paradoxes in Educational Equity for African Americans by M.
Christopher Brown II, analyzes the experiences of African American students who attend public schools in order to understand what is needed to produce an equitable education for all. Polite and Davis state, “To be an African American male in school and society places one at risk for a variety of negative consequences” (Brown II, 2015, p. 687). African American males must learn early on that displaying certain behaviors negatively affects their educational and social outcomes. At home, African American males are taught to be self-sufficient and active but in a school setting they are rewarded for conformity, quietness, cooperation and punished for independence, adventurousness, and inquisitiveness (Brown II, 2015, pp. 687-688).In Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, Ann Arnette Ferguson conducts a three-year ethnographic study of fifth and sixth grade African American males to learn about the daily interactions between students and teachers. On the first page of her book, Ferguson recounts one of her first experiences at Rosa Parks Elementary School.
… One of the adults, pointed to a black boy who walked by us in the hallway. ” That one has a jail-cell with his name on it,” he told me. We were looking at a ten-year-old, barely four feet tall, whose frail body was shrouded in baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt. The boy, Lamar, passed with the careful tread of someone who was in no hurry to get to where he was going.
He was on his way to the Punishing Room of the school. As he glanced quickly toward and then away from us, the image of the figure Tupac Shakur on the poster advertising the movie Juice flashed into my mind. I suppose it was the combination of the hooded sweatshirt, the guarded expression in his eyes, and what my companion had just said that reminded me of the face on the film poster that stared at me from billboards and sidings all over town. (p. 1)Her observations highlight the institutional practices and cultural portrayals of African American males that support racial injustices. Ferguson states, “Institutional practices continue to marginalize or exclude African Americans in the economy and society through the exercise of rules and purportedly objective standards by individuals who may consider themselves racially unbiased” (Ferguson, 2001, p. 19).
It is evident that teachers have not been properly trained to accommodate the needs of diverse student populations and have brought their own biases into the classroom. Racial-Ethnic Identity, Academic Achievement, and African-American Males: A Review of the literature by Brian L. Wright discusses how racial-ethnic identity plays a role in the academic success of African American males. Many times, African American males are viewed as “oppositional” to the culture of school by the way they express themselves (Wright, 2009, p. 123). Examples include, pants hanging below the waist, tone, and behaviors such as high fives, and special handshakes (Wright, 2009, p.
126). These forms of expression cause school personnel to doubt them and engage them negatively. In the article it states, “Black males respond to schooling based on both their perception of the treatment they receive in school and their perception of what schooling will do for them in the future” (Wright, 2009, p. 126). When school personnel act negatively towards African American males because of the way they present themselves, they are conveying a message of rejection which can ultimately lead to underachievement (Wright, 2009, p. 126). Literature on African American students have claimed that a major reason for academic underachievement in Black males is that they have not developed a healthy racial-ethnic identity within the context of school. “I’m Not Going to Become No Rapper”: Stereotypes as a Context of Ethnic and Racial Identity Development by Way, Hernandez, Rogers, and Hughes, analyzes how stereotypes impact the racial-ethnic identity of African American, European American, Chinese American, and Dominican American middle school students.
Negative identities can be created when stereotypes are expressed to an individual and he or she takes on the characteristics that make up that stereotype (Way et al., 2013, p. 409).
. For example, performing well academically is coded as acting “White” (Way et al., 2013, p. 410). “Acting Black” refers to speaking slang, dressing in urban style, and listening to hip-hop music (Way et al., 2013, p.
410). If African American students take on these stereotypes, than it becomes easy for them to believe that they cannot perform at a high level academically. As stated in the article, “the self is constructed in response to stereotypes and biases” (Way et al., 2013, p. 409). Stereotypes are one of the main ways in which students assess themselves and develop their racial-ethnic identities.
Across the nation, African American males are still experiencing inequality and underachievement in school. It is important for educators to think deeply about what is required of public education regarding pedagogy and experienced school personnel. The U.S. Department of Education’s report on “teacher quality” stated that, “increased classroom diversity has brought equity issues to the forefront of the educational agenda, but past studies have shown that many teachers were not trained to meet the needs of diverse student populations” (Brown II, 2015, p.
689). The majority of U.S. teachers are White, middle-class, and female. Many of these teachers have little knowledge about African American culture and lack cultural awareness and understanding. In Start with Us! Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in the Preschool Classroom, Durden, Escalante, and Blitch talk about two critically consciousness processes that teachers must engage in. The first one requires teachers to think about how the social identities of children in their classrooms predisposes them to injustices within society (Durden et al., 2015, p.
224). The second one requires teachers to critically reflect on their own biases towards the children in their classrooms (Durden et al., 2015, p. 224).
I believe these two reflective processes should be required of teachers but should start as early as being trained in the profession. Without these two practices, teachers are more likely to rationalize their beliefs and feelings towards their students which can ultimately affect their socio-cultural development and academic success (Durden et al., 2015, p. 224). One way this could be done is by professors facilitating activities that require future teachers to learn about the effects of discrimination and help them unpack the isms.
Below is an example of an activity that I participated in during undergrad which helped me think critically about the repercussions of stereotyping and institutional oppression.